We've all heard of Mardi Gras, the wild New Orleans multi-week party that occurs each February before lent. This is when thousands of people stuffed with King's Cake over-imbibe at Pat O'Briens and then do things that they normally wouldn't do--especially if they knew it was all caught on camera. So we all know Mardi Gras....but how many people have heard of Martedi Grasso, the Italian version of this Carnival celebration? I certainly hadn't, that is until I started researching the background of cannoli for today's post.
Martedi Grasso means different types of celebrations, and different types of foods, depending on where you are in Italy. In Naples, there is a grand and lavish buffet, where the starring item is lasagne di Carnivale, a combination of rich ricotta, meatballs, and all-things Italian. The Venetians mirror our New Orleans festivities by donning unique masks and attending elaborate parties. Along the Tuscan coast, there are grand parades with themed floats, and there are plenty of zeppole, small balls of fried dough coated in sugar (think Munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts.)
One tasty treat that can be found pretty much everywhere during Martedi Grasso is cannoli, fried wafers filled with light mixtures of fresh ricotta, sugar, flavorings, chocolate, and/or dried fruit. Actually, cannoli became popular enough that they are now found year-round wherever Italians have settled. In the past, these pastries were called "Carnival's Crown," and people would give cannoli to their friends by the dozen (remind me again how it is that Italian women are so thin??) Italy must have smelled heavenly with all of that cannoli preparation occurring at once. Mmmmm....
I have always wanted to try to make cannoli, and I had a few recipes jotted down in my notebook, so I finally decided to give it a go. The whole process was much easier than I anticipated, that is, if I only wanted to make a few cannoli. My cannoli-form supply consists of one piece, so I had to fry them up one at a time, which became a bit tedious. It's a great way to exercise portion control though! If you do wish to give this recipe a try, try to have at least 3 or 4 molds on hand. Here are my extra tips for making these traditional Italian treats:
- Although I found it very easy to roll the dough out by hand, the dough can also be passed through a pasta maker several times to achieve a uniformly thin sheet. Start with the widest attachment and slowly narrow the width until the sheet is the thickness of a dime.
- The cannoli dough can be refrigerated, tightly wrapped, overnight. Let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes prior to rolling out.
- If you don't have Grand Marnier on hand, you can use a sweet Marsala wine or another flavor of liqueur in its place.
- The finished cannoli shells can be tightly covered and frozen for up to 1 week. They can also be stored overnight at room temperature, tightly covered.
- If you do not have a piping bad and a star tip, then you can either spoon the filling into the shells, or you can "pipe" the filling in using a plastic bag with the corner snipped off.
- Instead of making mini cannoli, this recipe will prepare about a dozen larger cannoli. You can also make cone-shaped pastries using a metal cone mold (see photo.)
Mini Chocolate-Orange Cannoli
Makes about 2 dozen
For the filling
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange zest
1/4 cup miniature chocolate chips
For the cannoli shells
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
1/4 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons canola oil, plus additional for frying
1 egg white, lightly beaten
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios
Prepare the filling: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the ricotta with the confectioner's sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and orange zest. Stir in the chocolate chips. Cover the filling and chill.
Prepare the shells: In the clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon, and salt. Add the Grand Marnier, orange juice, and oil. Beat the mixture on medium speed until the dough comes together. Transfer the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it until it is smooth and elastic, 8 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
Divide the dough into 3 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to the thickness of a dime. Cut out rounds using a 3-inch cutter (re-roll any scraps.)
Add enough oil to a large saucepan so that it comes up about 3 1/2 inches on the sides. Heat the oil over medium heat until it registers 380F degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Wrap each round of dough around a 4-inch long cannoli form, sealing the ends with a dab of egg white. Working in batches of 4, fry the shells until golden, about 1 minute. Carefully transfer the shells to paper towels and let cool for 5 minutes. Carefully slide out the molds and let the shells cool. Continue with the rest of the dough.
Melt the chocolate in a small saucepan, stirring constantly. Dip one end of the cannoli shells into the chocolate and then into the pistachios. Let the chocolate set.
Transfer the chilled filling to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch star tip. Pipe the filling into one end of the shell halfway, and then pipe from the other end. Repeat with the remaining shells and filling. Serve immediately!